By Kirk Petersen
Despite financial storm clouds on the horizon, the Executive Council has made grants of $150,000 each — large grants by council standards — to the Dioceses of Minnesota and Kentucky, “in response to the recent racist killings by officers of the law in their dioceses.”
The two dioceses “are doing the work of racial justice as we speak,” said council member Julia Ayala Harris of Oklahoma, who introduced the proposal. She said the idea was born out of the insistence of several council members that the council needs “to go beyond making statements and into bold action.”
The action came at the conclusion of the council’s four-day meeting, which had been scheduled for San Juan, Puerto Rico, but was held online. The 40-member Executive Council is the governing body of the Episcopal Church between the triennial General Conventions, and normally meets three times annually.
The council also passed a variety of resolutions related to racial justice, including calling for federal review of all deaths in police custody, to help identify patterns and practices of discrimination by state or local law enforcement. Several members made reference to the sobering museum exhibits about lynching that the council saw during its October, 2019 meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, and council members repeatedly committed to continuing and expanding the church’s opposition to racism.
Memories of budget trauma
The other major focus of the meeting was the budget. The Church is financially strong and has not yet seen a substantial drop-off in income, but nobody doubts that harder times are coming.
The institutional memory of the last major downturn loomed over the financial deliberations. The 2009 General Convention passed a drastically reduced budget that eliminated between 30 and 40 positions from what was then a 180-member staff.
Entire departments and programs were eliminated, and the trauma was compounded by a perception by some that the cuts had been made without due consideration of the livelihoods involved. The House of Deputies approved the budget by voice vote after three hours of debate. The bishops then ratified the budget without debate.
“I remember what went on the last time,” said council member Diane Pollard of New York. “I was there. I saw it. I sat with people who cried all night.”
The church is determined this time to make any necessary cuts only after methodical, transparent deliberations. Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry said in his opening remarks June 8 that “depending on the length and duration of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic upheaval, there may be reductions required in staffing. That is not our hope, but we must prepare and be honest that it’s a possibility.”
The Rev. Mally Lloyd of Massachusetts, who chairs the council’s finance committee, said the church is entering the anticipated downturn in a very strong financial position.
“We’ve got lots of money, heh, in some senses,” she said in a committee meeting. “We’re responsible to the future, but we’re also responsible for getting to the future, so how do we balance those equal goods?”
She told the council that staff had been asked in April to determine savings that could be made without any reductions in staff — what she described as “low-hanging fruit.” Staff identified $4.2 million in potential cuts, out of the $46 million 2020 budget.
The finance committee — always the hardest-working part of the council, and never more so than now — then went through the proposed cuts line by line, accepting some and flagging others for further discussion with staff. Lloyd explained that the committee did not want to make recommendations that affect the priorities set by General Convention at this time.
The committee designated more than $2 million as low-hanging fruit — primarily travel, the ban on which has been extended to Labor Day, and initiatives that cannot proceed while the pandemic continues. Staff was asked to implement those reductions as quickly as possible.
The committee plans to come back to the council with further recommendations at a not-yet-scheduled meeting in July.
Hardships in non-domestic dioceses
The committee considered a request for $410,000 dollars in emergency support from the Diocese of Honduras, which has “suffered a loss of income from schools, which support the diocesan budget, due to COVID-19, but retains liability to pay its teachers,” Lloyd said. The committee settled on an immediate $50,000 grant, enough to cover two months of salaries, and appointed a task force to work with the diocese to see what savings might be gained through changes in business practices. “This does not close the door to a future ask,” she said.
Thus far the assessment waiver committee has received only two requests for waiver relief, although more seem likely as the economic downturn continues. Council agreed to waive half of the $17,000 pledge of the Diocese of the Dominican Republic, and all of the $2,000 commitment of the Diocese of Colombia. Both countries are being ravaged by COVID-19 and its financial effects.
She also had good news to share regarding diocesan assessments. Each diocese is expected to give 15 percent of its income to the Church Center, unless a waiver is approved. In July 2019, TLC published an overview of the waiver process and sought explanations from the 12 domestic dioceses — out of 103 — that had pledged less than 15 percent for 2019.
One of those 12 was the Diocese of Dallas. “We denied Dallas a waiver sometime back because it was their practice to split their assessments between Episcopal Church outreach projects that they chose to support, and the Episcopal Church,” Lloyd said.
Less than a year later, Dallas asked for reconsideration in the waiver process, having moved their pledges from 6.1 percent for 2019, to 12.1 percent for 2020, to the full 15 percent for 2021. “This is exactly the kind of movement we were hoping to see from our dioceses, the commitment to and partnership with the Episcopal Church.” She urged the council to approve “a retroactive waiver” to honor the commitment to partnership made by Bishop of Dallas George Sumner and the diocesan leadership.
The council approved all of the recommendations of the finance committee. Lloyd noted there will be many more budget sessions to come, as in a normal year the committee would have presented a preliminary 2021 budget at the June meeting, and the committee still must focus on 2020.
The council heard reports from a variety of staff people describing the way the pandemic has upended their work, and what they are doing to adjust.
Sally Johnson, the chancellor (legal advisor) to President of the House of Deputies Gay Clark Jennings, said she has been “full-time looking at the 80th General Convention [scheduled for 2021], doing a whole lot of historical and canonical research on the rules related to the possibilities of moving it, changing it, delaying it, and it feels like a three-dimensional chess game that a core group of us are looking at. … if we move this piece then that happens, everything from economic impact, to cost to dioceses and the Church, to what does the constitution say, what does the canons say, what does the Church need, how are all these things interpreted, who decides. … There’s a lot at stake for a lot of people.”
Church leadership announced June 5: “We have concluded with regret that we must plan as if our traditional 10-day gathering of 10,000 people or more will not be possible in 2021.”
The Rev. Anthony Guillén, director of ethnic ministries, noted that not only are people of color more susceptible to COVID-19, they also often are members of poorer churches that are not well equipped to provide online worship. He said the church has applied for a grant from the Lilly Endowment to help churches develop new ways of worship.
The ongoing protests sparked by the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody were on everyone’s mind. The Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation and stewardship of creation, told a committee hearing the church is launching a survey of 27 selected dioceses to determine the extent of racial injustice in their dioceses. She noted there is a curated page of links in the racial reconciliation section of the website to provide resources to help churches and dioceses.
Episcopal Migration Ministries had hoped to resettle as many as 1,800 refugees in the United States in 2020, said Director Demetrio Alvero, but only 425 had been resettled by the time the borders were closed because of the pandemic. EMM continues its work supporting refugees who already have arrived, and is working to enlist more individual congregations in the effort.
Staff Officer for Evangelism Jerusalem Greer discussed efforts “at the intersection of pain and change” to help churches pursue evangelism efforts online, and “not to think of this as a temporary situation.”